Celebrating the Women of Byzantium

Did you know that March is Women’s History Month?

We’re ending the month with a celebration two of the Byzantine Empire’s best-known and well-regarded women: Empress Pulcheria and Empress Theodora.

While both were given the title of “Empress,” one was born into the imperial family (but eschewed the luxury which came with her place in society in favor of a pious life) and the other climbed her way from the lowest ranks of society to become one of the empire’s most beloved rulers.  We invite you to discover the histories behind these two fascinating women.

Curious to learn more about Byzantium’s famous women? Click here for Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.

Empress Pulcheria (399-453)

Empress Pulcheria frescho. Photo by Solntsev, F. G., via Wikimedia Commons.

Although born into the imperial family (she was the daughter of Emperor Arcadius), St. Pulcheria did not live a life of indulgence and opulence.  She was well-educated, pious, and found strength in her devotion to Christianity.   Levelheaded and wise, Pulcheria was well-regarded within the empire.  Although first-born, she served as regent for her younger brother, Theodosious II, and was appointed empress in her own right.  In fact, at the age of 13, she had dismissed her brother’s tutors and undertook educating the future emperor herself.  Theodosius came to greatly his sister’s input and influence.

His wife, Eudocia, on the other hand, did not.  In return, Pulcheria’s levelheadedness did not extend to her sister-in-law. The two quarrelled from 440-443 (a fight that finally ended with Eudocia withdrawing to Jerusalem).

What may have seen a political victory for Pulcheria was short-lived: through the maneuverings of Eudocia and the influence of chamberlain Chrysaphius, Empress Pulcheria was removed from power soon after.

In seclusion, Pulcheria began a new life of piety and reaffirmed her faith.  However, without her wisdom, the empire suffered.  Eager to quell any chaos or unrest and restore the aura of peace throughout the empire, Theodosious requested that his sister return and resume her position as regent.

With the death of Theodosious in 450, Marcian assumed the role of emperor (as selected by the Empress Pulcheria herself) and Pulcheria planned to return to her simple, secluded life.  With great respect for her wisdom and the none-too-distant memory of unrest during her absence, both government officials and the new emperor insisted that she stay.  Putting the good of the empire before her own desires, Empress Pulcheria agreed to remain and marry Marcian.  There was one condition, though: her vow of chastity would be honored and she would preserve her virginity in marriage.

Despite being that of a “loveless” marriage, the imperial spouses held each other in great respect.  They upheld the Orthodox faith within the empire, protecting it against heresies.  During her life, Pulcheria built many homes, hospitals, and churches (including the Church of the Mother of God at Blachernae).

Empress Pulcheria’s faith, kindness, and generosity continued even after her death in 453 when, as she had requested, her possessions were donated to the Orthodox Church and to the poor.  Today, St. Pulcheria is remembered and celebrated on her feast day of September 30th (she also shares a feast day with Marcian on February 17th).

Empress Theodora (497-548)

St. Theodora mosaic at the Basilica San Vitale (Ravenna, Italy). Photo by Photo by Roger Culos, via Wikimedia Commons).

The daughter of a circus bear tamer, Theodora was born into the lowest ranks of society.  If it seemed as though her status within the Byzantine Empire could only improve, the death of Theodora’s father proved otherwise.  In order to help support her family, the teenager took to the stage – a scandalous decision as actresses at the time were held in the same regards as prostitutes (leading gossipy contemporaries to claim that Theodora was a prostitute, but more on that later…).   Theodora saw her dire circumstances as temporary, however, and resolved to climb the social ladder one day.

It was during a trip to Egypt when she was 16 that Theodora discovered monphysitism (the belief that Christ was wholly divine).  She converted and renounced the stage, determined to follow a more virtuous path.

Soon after her conversion, Theodora met Justinian, heir to the Byzantine Empire.  Justinian was quite taken with the beautiful and intelligent young woman, but he was forbidden from marrying her.  It was simply not appropriate or legal for the heir to take on an immoral, debauched (former) actress as a bride.  Justinian, however, looked past Theodora’s scandalous past and was determined to keep her in his life.  He took her as his mistress, marrying her after working to legalize marriage between lower class women and high-ranking men.

When Justinian ascended the throne in 527, Theodora was proclaimed empress.  In terms of governing the empire, Justinian regarded Theodora as his equal and the empress was given equal power in government. She met with foreign envoys and rulers (a status that was traditionally limited to men).

Far ahead of her time, Theodora was also a women’s’ rights activist who fought to give women the same legal rights as men – working to grant them the right to own property and even divorce.  She passed laws prohibiting human trafficking and abolishing a law legalizing the killing of adulterous women.

The reign of Justinian and Theodora is characterized by their colossal efforts to strengthen the empire and return it to its former glory.  Under Justinian and Theodora, the empire saw prodigious architectural and artistic manufacture, including  the rebuilding of Hagia Sophia, which had been destroyed in the Nika Revolt (it is worth noting that during the revolt, Justinian had wished to flee.  Theodora convinced him to stay, citing that she would rather die as ruler than leave the empire behind).  Throughout their rule, Justinian and Theodora built many magnificent churches, including the beautiful Church of the Apostles, where Theodora was buried in 548. 

After Theodora’s death, Justinian passed little legislation before his own death in 565.  This is a prime example of just how vital Theodora was to the empire.

Our St. Theodora Cross

Unfortunately, as mentioned above, Theodora’s legacy has been marred.  Procopius, a scholar and contemporary of Theodora and Justinian, gives a scathing, vitriolic account of the imperial rulers in his book, Secret History.  A crude gossip with a known dislike of the rulers, Procopius paints a ostentatious, depraved, and appalling portrait of the beloved rulers.  Were Justinian and Theodora perfect? Obviously not, but they certainly weren’t, as Procopius writes “…veritable demons, and what the poets call vampires: who laid their heads together to see how they could most easily and quickly destroy the race and deeds of men; and assuming human bodies, became man-demons, and so convulsed the world.”

Despite her slightly tarnished reputation, Theodora is remembered for her contributions to not only the Byzantine Empire, but to women as well. Today, St. Theodora is celebrated on her feast day of November 14th.

At Gallery Byzantium, we have commemorated the empress with our St. Theodora Cross.  The cross is based on a 6th century gold Byzantine Cross from a private collection.  Although the history of the piece does not directly connect to Theodora, the simplicity and beauty of the design combined with the strength and boldness of the cross itself recall the empress’ legacy.


Empress Pulcheria
Empress Theodora


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